Existing data and indicators inadequately measure the important benefits people derive from the services nature provides, according to a working paper released today by the World Resources Institute (WRI).
“Indictors, such as unemployment and poverty rates, are used in nearly every sector of the economy to simplify data, identify problem areas, and inform corrective action,” said Christian Layke, an associate at WRI and author of Measuring Nature’s Benefits: A Preliminary Roadmap for Improving Ecosystem Service Indicators. “At present, ecosystem service indicators are based on those originally developed for narrower environmental and economic fields - such as climatology or forestry - leading to conspicuous knowledge and data gaps.”
The world’s ecosystems provide an array of services to people, ranging from basic needs like food and water to less tangible benefits such as pollination and erosion control. According to the working paper, most ecosystem services, especially regulating and cultural services, are being degraded at an alarming rate.
For instance, the Chesapeake Bay’s water quality and ecosystem habitats have been drastically reduced in recent years, resulting in historically low levels of the bay’s oyster and blue crab populations. This degradation has not only threatened the livelihoods of regional fisherman, but has also jeopardized the recreational services that the Bay provides to millions of Americans.
WRI’s paper highlights the knowledge gaps that exist on the contributions ecosystems make to human economic and social well-being. Without this information, policy makers are limited in their ability to integrate ecosystem services into mainstream economic planning and development policy.
The paper also finds that indictors for regulatory and cultural services, such as crop pollination or recreation, lag far behind those for “provisioning services” like crops, livestock, and freshwater. The latter are more tangible and easily perceived by the general public; some are already tracked in many countries’ national economic accounts.
The research builds on the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA), which found that an estimated 60% of the planet’s ecosystem services have been degraded. The MA highlighted the need for a robust set of ecosystem service indicators to inform decisions made in the public and private sectors. The WRI working paper represents an important step toward meeting that need.
“The next step is to develop consistent, effective indicators to help policy makers better understand the implications of their decisions on ecosystem services,” said Craig Hanson, Director of WRI’s People and Ecosystems Program. “In turn, this will inform and support policy changes to ensure that ecosystems continue to provide numerous benefits to people.”
Recommendations from WRI’s research suggest the need for a collaborative approach to developing and strengthening ecosystem service indicators, gathering data, and supporting their use by policy makers at the national level.
WRI, the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature are co-hosting an international experts meeting in Cambridge, UK September 22-23, 2009 to reflect upon current indicators and develop a collaborative framework from which to test and apply ecosystem service indicators on a global scale. The meeting will build on WRI’s research and momentum generated from other follow-up work to MA.